Working Together

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All barns should have a plan of action in case of fire, but many don’t go beyond a few exit signs or fire extinguishers placed in strategic areas. To protect your horses and business, there is so much more that can be done.

Sonia Levitsky, of Meadowview Stables in Mettawa, Ill., recently went beyond the usual precautions. Because Levitsky rents her facility from the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the buildings are inspected by them each year to make sure that everything is up to code. But with a 64-stall facility spread out over four barns, Levitsky was concerned about how the local fire department would handle a fire at such a large place. She knew that even simple things, such as opening a gate latch, could be a problem at night with a panicked horse by your side.

Then the unthinkable happened. “There was a fire at a neighboring barn,” recalls Levitsky. “They lost nine horses and we were all very saddened. I started talking with friends about what we could do and one of my boarders, Sherry Kaplan, said the problem is that a lot of firemen do not know how to handle horses and are afraid of the animals.

“So Kaplan approached the local fire department and asked the fire chief if he’d like to have his firemen, very casually, come look at our facility. That way, in case of an emergency, they wouldn’t have to stop and think where are the exits, where do we go, how do we turn out the horses, how do we get a lead rope, how does that gate latch work? I thought it would also be a good way to familiarize them with the horses. The fire chief felt it was a fabulous idea and was thrilled to be asked.”

Shortly after that conversation, the first group of firemen arrived at Meadowview Stables for training. They came with all of their fire paraphernalia, which worked out well as the noisy machinery was good for the horses to hear. The first thing they did was tour the facility to acquaint themselves with the area and also to provide suggestions to Levitsky about safety issues.

The group was kept small, with just five people, none with horse experience. “We had to explain everything to them,” notes Levitsky. “I told them how a horse functions, how they will pull away from pressure, how they see, how they might kick if you come up suddenly from behind. I also explained that the horses they would be working with were very calm and gentle, but that in an emergency situation they are not going to act that way. I told them about the flight mentality as well as how horses feel safest in their stalls, so they may not want to leave a burning building.”

The firemen first learned how to halter a horse. Levitsky and her assistant kept showing them how to do it, but they just couldn’t get it right, and they knew that in a panic situation there would be no time to stop and think. One of the firemen asked if the rope that they carried might also work as a halter. The rope, a long, nylon line, much like a longe line, is an important part of a firefighter’s outfit. Levitsky showed them how to make an emergency slip halter from it, and they loved the idea. It was quick, easy and in an emergency, they wouldn’t have to worry about trying to find a lead rope or which end of the halter goes on first.

As the lesson progressed, the firemen offered many other great suggestions. “For instance,” says Levitsky, “we asked about owners going in to the burning building to help because they know their horses and might be able to get them out quickly. I was told that firemen will not handle a single horse until they know that every person is out of the building. I had never thought about it, but now we will have to tell our boarders not to go into the barn to save their horse.

“Another thing,” continues Levitsky, “is what area to keep open for fire trucks. We showed them how we keep a lane open next to the barn, but they said no, the trucks don’t come to the barn. They go to the hydrants. The hose will be down by the barn, but the truck needs access to the hydrant—so it is much more important to keep the area near the hydrant clear.”

The suggestions from the firemen continued throughout their visit. Other ideas include putting reflective tape on the gates of the paddocks. In the dark it might be difficult to find a gate. Also, even when placement of the gate is obvious, which end opens may not be. Putting the reflective tape on the latch end of the gate will save precious seconds. Additionally, consider making diagrams of the facility, laminating them and then hanging them where they will be quickly seen.

When Levitsky explained the use of towels to cover a frightened horse’s face and offered to keep a towel at each stall, suggestions once again flowed. One of the firemen pulled out a small towel, which is another standard piece of a fireman’s equipment. “The towels that the firemen had were better than what I could get,” notes Levitsky. “They were smaller and easier to handle. Then, as we were making the slip halters with their leads, they suggested throwing one of their wet towels over the head first, and that was perfect.”

With the first training session a huge success, additional groups came to the barn. Seeing the benefit that his employees were reaping from this program, the fire chief asked Levitsky to continue the curriculum on a more formal basis.

Also, knowing that if there is a fire, those answering the call would probably come from more than one town, he suggested a mini-course that could be passed on to other barns and fire departments. Levitsky is currently working on putting this information down on paper to be passed along to other firemen.

Getting involved in fire preparedness can save lives, both human and equine. Readers wanting more information on the program that Sonia Levitsky has developed, can contact her at 847-604-6911 or sonialevitsky@msn.com. She is eager to share her ideas.